Retail models have traditionally mirrored the lifestyles of shoppers. As retail developments evolved over time through strip malls, enclosed malls and open-air lifestyle centers, each incarnation has reflected changes in consumer habits and means.

Nowadays, people are looking to improve their quality of life. They're living farther from their place of employment and spending significant time on freeways. The inevitable frustrations of this lifestyle are causing strong consumer desire to reduce the dependence on automobiles. More and more, people want work, home, amenities and transit to be linked in one central location.

The transit village answers these demands.

The latest evolution of the retail lifestyle center, the transit village is a mixed-use model that links to transit facilities and provides a true urban and amenity-rich living, working and entertainment experience. Unlike the shopping mall or strip mall, the transit village is based on the traditional town square concept where offices, eateries, shops, civic facilities and health-care services coexist in one central location. While fitting nicely into its urban surroundings, the transit village also discourages the use of cars and encourages pedestrian traffic and use of mass transit.

The transit village is the next generation of the lifestyle center and an urban redevelopment type that is revitalizing our metropolitan centers. Transit villages are a reaction to our freeways having become our Main Streets.

Although this development type is spreading rapidly both on the domestic scene and abroad, it is actually a fine-tuned reincarnation of a pre-World War II development pattern, when village main streets and town squares formed around transit stations. With the automobile not widely used, people were limited to walking and taking streetcars to get around. As a result, cities developed vertically as centralized “places” where commerce, socialization, education and entertainment came together.

With the widespread adoption of the automobile, population centers shifted away from downtown, and suburbs and highway systems emerged. Communities began to form on the outskirts of cities, adjacent to freeways. Sites at these locations became ideal for shopping center development that thrived by drawing customers from residences within a 10-mile radius. Business parks, and then power centers, were established along the freeway to limit traffic within the downtown areas. These factors led to the decentralization of communities and the creation of the “Freeway as Main Street.”

Transit villages are re-creating centralized places where social activities, living, work and civic functions come together at important locales of transit.

Retail and the Transit Village

While it may not be the largest component of the transit village, retail is typically the most important element — the critical piece that drives its lifestyle and the “glue” that holds all other parts together and links the station to the community. It provides amenities not only to village residents, but also to regional transit travelers and people who reside in the surrounding community. Sometimes it links the community to the larger district; other times it provides for the needs of a neighborhood with a market, drugstore and services, or retail can be such a large factor that the village becomes a regional entertainment and lifestyle destination in its own right.

As it is with other mixed-use lifestyle centers, the amount and type of retail in the village can vary. While you're not likely to find warehouse stores or large home improvement centers in a transit village, many other traditional retail anchor stores are developing new formats to fit into today's mixed-use urban centers. These include department stores, supermarkets, linen and home furnishing stores. Many tenants who abandoned urban centers when residents moved to the suburbs are now vying for space to satisfy the needs of urban dwellers and shoppers.

A growing demographic is returning to urban living, where the traditional town concept provides an alternative to suburban living. College students, service providers, urban professionals, singles, couples and empty nesters are seeking the benefits of the transit village: proximity to work and amenities and pedestrian-friendly environments with transit.

The transit village presents many positive economic, social and environmental benefits to surrounding communities and the transit system as a whole. With many transit village sites having once been large parking lots for park-and-ride rail system patrons, the conversion of this valuable urban land to thriving villages has reestablished connections between the community and the station and has served as a catalyst for urban revitalization.

Transit villages also increase foot traffic to existing retail and services, and provide links to existing housing, new residential opportunities, and office and civic uses. A village linked to its surroundings can provide the critical mass necessary to spawn additional redevelopment in the community. This development can create both a center for the community and a destination for regional rail patrons.

The BART system in northern California is developing transit villages at several stations. These stations are being set up into village centers that provide a place for the community and a pedestrian link to the station. One example is the Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland. Built on the former site of a large BART parking lot that created a disconnect between the station and the community's main shopping street, this nationally recognized urban village now links the station and the shopping area. The village has increased regional foot traffic and become a major catalyst for redevelopment in the community.

In Los Angeles, the MTA has been focusing new transit village development around subway stations as well. At the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection, one such village under development will include hotel, high-rise condominiums and loft apartments (including an affordable component), as well as a street level gourmet market and neighborhood-serving retail. The project anchors the east end of the Hollywood entertainment and theater district and is the centerpiece of an emerging residential district.

Communities in San Diego are also applying these planning principles to new development. Projects such as the Promenade at Rio Vista are integral parts of mixed-use town centers incorporating high-density residential and commercial at a new station along the Red Car Trolley line.

With population growth, increasing traffic and pollution, and the rising cost of gasoline, the demographic in search of alternatives to suburban living and long commutes will continue to grow. Transit-oriented development that combines retail amenities with affordable housing, office and civic facilities is both responsible and effective at responding to these issues. The transit village will continue to be one of the urban lifestyle choices of the future.

John Waldron is an Architect and Associate Partner with MVE & Partners, Architecture, an urban design, planning and interiors firm specializing in retail, mixed-use and transit-oriented development. The firm is located in both Irvine and Oakland, Calif.